What to Do When You Don’t Know a Word on the GRE

Chances are pretty good that a word may pop up on the exam that you’ve never seen before — no matter how many GRE vocabulary lists you’ve reviewed. If English is not your first language, this is even more true. I had a student learn over 5,000 words to be prepared. But it’s hard to fully prepare, and all things considered, the test is tough, and you’ll likely see a word you don’t know. What then?

Take the steps now to prepare for this eventuality. First, make it a point to know as many words as possible that you find in Magoosh and ETS practice material. Look up these new, unfamiliar words as you find them since these are the words that are likely to be on the exam.

Let’s pause a moment and talk about what it means to know a word. Memorization is what we tend to default to. Put a word on a one side of a flashcard, definition on the back, and work through the cards attempting to regurgitate the definition exactly how you wrote it. This is a good place to start, but it is definitely not the same as knowing a word, feeling the word’s meaning deep in your bones.

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To really learn a word, you need to use it. As with all things in life, it’s much easier to learn by doing. So start using those strange, unfamiliar words you find. Use them in your conversations and in your emails. Attempt to drop the word in the sentence. Experiment with it in different situations. The act of trying to use the word is fundamental to learning the word. Anyone who has learned a second language will know this to be true.

Some of you might be worried about people’s response. Well don’t! It’s not a test. You are just communicating with people. Whatever a person’s response, it will help you learn the word. Either they won’t know what the word means, and they will stop and ask. Then you have to recall the meaning or look it up again. Or, they may know the word and notice that you used it in a strange way. Then you get to learn from them, or do a little research, to find out how to properly use the word. Otherwise, they might not know the word, but be too embarrassed to ask its meaning, or you will use it perfectly, they will recognize its perfect usage, and understand what you are saying with more clarity. It’s a win from every angle!

The second tip is a little more strategic and something that you can do right now—read a lot. This is very important because if you’ve done a lot of reading, you’ll find that even if you don’t know the exact definition of a word, you’ll remember having seen that word in context before, somewhere in the depths of your brain, remembering that the word had a positive or negative connotation, whether it was associated with a certain other word, or appeared in a certain discussion about law, medicine, or technology. Anything else you can fish around for is significantly better than never having seen the word before. So reading a lot now minimizes the probability of unknown, surprising words on test day (this is explained, with examples, at the end of the Vocabulary eBook).

Now let’s turn to test day. What to do when we don’t know a word? Ignore it! If you are committed to reading a lot now, you’ll learn that you can get the gist of something without knowing every word in the paragraph. After lots of reading, you’ll be more comfortable not knowing something. You’ll look for the clues in the sentence that connect to the word. And you’ll have the confidence based on your experience to move forward, using your instincts and knowledge to find the right answer. You aren’t ignoring the word so much as making do with what you do know.

Based on our experience with the new GRE, it seems pretty clear that the difference between students who get a low or average score and students who get a very good score on the GRE is that the lower group only focuses on memorizing words—they have no idea what to do when faced with a new word—without reading and learning words in context—they are much more likely to come up with a fairly good guess for an “unfamiliar” word.

From our experience it’s clear what a student should do. Now it’s up to you to do what is necessary. What will you do?


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